Court documents released Wednesday suggest that the RCMP believes Senator Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, committed fraud and abused their positions of trust, but it did not point the finger at the Prime Minister.
Still, the Mounties’ 80-page production order paints a troubling picture of the direct involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office in the whitewashing of a Senate report and the lengths to which it was willing to go to save a popular figure on the Conservatives’ fundraising circuit.
It also raised some important questions.
1. Why did the Prime Minister’s office go to such great lengths to protect Senator Mike Duffy from an independent audit and the consequences associated with claiming inappropriate housing expenses?
Court documents show that Wright and Duffy, along with Duffy’s lawyer, Janice Payne and the Prime Minister’s lawyer, Benjamin Perrin were aided by the Prime Minister’s director of issues management, Chris Woodcock, and his manager of parliamentary affairs, Patrick Rogers, to hatch a secret plan to have Duffy admit that he might have made a mistake in claiming expenses because the rules were unclear and that the expenses would be reimbursed (by the party originally).
In exchange, Duffy would receive guarantees that his Conservative colleagues would not throw him out of the Senate and he would be spared from a Deloitte audit into his housing claims.
Payne, in a Feb. 21 email setting out five demands from the PMO, states that Duffy’s “apparent ineligibility for the housing allowance stems from his time on the road on behalf of the party, there will be an arrangement to keep him whole on the repayment. His legal fees will also be reimbursed.”
Wright emails other PMO staff stating that he doesn’t want to be seen agreeing with Payne’s comment that Duffy couldn’t meet the eligibility criteria because he was on the road (fundraising for the party), but “the Party is open to keeping Sen. Duffy whole since it is clear that any overpayments were innocently received. I have a call into the Party to confirm this as I think that the Senator has a right to have it confirmed.”
On Feb. 27, when Wright finds out that Duffy actually owes about $80,000, he is “beyond furious.”
Still, he tells Perrin: “I will arrange for the amount to be wired to Janice Payne in trust.”
Why was Duffy worth so much to the Conservative Party of Canada that they were willing to pay his $13,560 in legal fees and, originally, $32,000 to repay his expenses?
Was Duffy worth $45,000 but not $100,000?
Wright writes on Feb. 22 that the “Party would not inform anyone” that donors’ money was used to pay Duffy’s expenses. What else is the Conservative Fund being used for?
On March 8, Wright confirms to Chris Woodcock that he is personally covering Duffy’s $90,000 in expenses.
2. What did the Prime Minister know about his office’s original plan for dealing with Mike Duffy’s expenses?
In a Feb. 22 email, Nigel Wright tells Benjamin Perrin that “I now have the go-ahead” to keep Duffy "whole on the situation", or free from having to pay back any money. Who gave Wright, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, the go-ahead?
Later on, Wright writes: “I do want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final.” An hour later, Wright sends another email stating: “We are good to go from the PM once Ben has his confirmation from Payne (Duffy’s lawyer).”
The documents suggest Harper knew that Duffy’s expenses were going to be repaid by the party and that the Senator from PEI would be spared a heavy-handed audit.
The production order also suggests that Wright felt he was under pressure from the Prime Minister to resolve the situation in the Senate that was hurting the Conservative government’s image, and causing – as he refers to it – “our public agony.”
“...have to do this in a way that does not lead to the Chinese water torture of new facts in the public domain, that the PM does not want…” Wright writes.
3. How did the Prime Minister believe the Duffy situation was resolved?
When the entire story blew up with a CTV news report on May 14, Wright tells the Prime Minister’s press secretary Carl Vallée: “The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses.” What does that mean?
The RCMP investigator does say he has seen no evidence to suggest that the Prime Minister was “personally involved” in the minutiae of the matters.
4. Was the PMO acting improperly when it meddled in the Senate investigation and the Deloitte audit?
The Prime Minister recently stated that the Senate is an independent body. However, the court documents suggest that the PMO sought to direct the actions of the upper chamber and its members – with the help of senators Carolyn Stewart Olsen, David Tkachuk and Marjory LeBreton – who were called in first to help halt the Deloitte audit if Duffy repaid his expenses and later were asked to help make the Senate report less critical of Duffy.
“I am always ready to do exactly what is asked,” Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen writes to Wright on March 1.
Back on Feb. 15, Wright wrote that if the PMO couldn’t get what it wanted from one committee, “then the Senate by motion should constitute a special committee that will have the right Senators on board.”
Wright at one point wants assurances from Deloitte and/or the Senate subcommittee that their investigation into Duffy’s secondary residency claims would be considered completed and the issue resolved if Duffy’s expenses were repaid.
Stewart Olsen tells him that Tkachuk and LeBreton cannot be trusted to ensure this and says calls need to be made to the audit firm. “Confidentially both Marj and David are telling each other the audit will not be pulled… I think the only way to do this is to tell Deloitte that we are satisfied with the repayment and end the audit. The non partisan nature of the committee is a problem, as is the Clerk who seems to have his own agenda.”
Wright asks Stewart Olsen if she can help ensure that the auditors’ report contains what the PMO wants, namely: “It shouldn’t conclude that “Kanata is the primary residence,” and it doesn’t need to conclude that because Mike has committed to repay the money as if that were the case. I could use your help in getting them to understand that and making it happen.”
Benjamin Perrin also asked Senator Irving Gerstein to work through senior contacts at Deloitte. Rogers tells Wright, Gerstein will “call back once we have Deloitte locked in.”
On March 20, Gerstein reports that “repayments will not change Deloitte’s conclusions” but that they cannot reach a conclusion because Duffy’s lawyer has not provided them with requested information. Rogers responds: “I would propose that the Senator continue to not engage with Deloitte.”
In an interview with the RCMP, Tkachuk is unable to remember whether PMO staff helped with the writing of the Senate report, “but it is possible.” The Senate subcommittee, made up of Tkachuk, Stewart Olsen and Liberal George Furey – who did not agree but was outvoted – deleted two negative findings against Duffy after meeting with the PMO.
Rogers emailed Wright and Woodcock to tell them he had met with Stewart Olsen, who agreed with “our changes.” “I reinforced with her that the implementing of all of the changes to the report was the fulfillment of her commitment to Nigel and our building. She indicated she understood this.”
One Conservative staffer in LeBreton’s office, Chris Montgomery, the director of Parliamentary Affairs, is opposed to the plan. Stewart Olsen tells the PMO: “Montgomery says we as Senators should not compromise ourselves.”
“You are not compromising yourself. You’re fulfilling commitments that were made,” Rogers responds.
5. Why were the people involved not all fired when the whole plan became known?
Although Wright was asked to resign, several of the people with intimate knowledge of the plan are still employed and in some cases were even promoted after the Duffy scandal. They include:
– Chris Woodcock, who is now chief of staff to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver
– Patrick Rogers, who is now director of policy in Heritage Minister Shelly Glover’s office, according to the federal government’s directory.
– Senator Irving Gerstein, who is still sitting in the Senate and still in charge of the Conservative Fund Canada.
– David van Hemmen, Wright’s assistant, is now assistant to Ray Novak, the new chief of staff.
Benjamin Perrin, who was the Prime Minister’s legal advisor, left his job in April. The RCMP says it has been told that all his emails were destroyed when he left and cannot be retrieved.
Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen, David Tkachuk and Marjory LeBreton may not have known that Wright paid Duffy’s expenses but they were involved, according to the documents, in trying to get the Senate to act in a certain way. All are still sitting in the upper chamber, although they are no longer key members of the Tories’ Senate team.
The documents from the RCMP are only allegations that have not been proved in court.
As Senator Tkachuk told The Huffington Post Canada, the documents suggest only that this is what RCMP investigator Corporal Greg Horton believes.
“I think this is a fiction,” Tkachuk told HuffPost. “The cops don’t have to prove anything. They write a story to go to a judge, and they give an opinion. And this is their opinion only.”